From Endurance to Dressage
Izzy never makes things easy. There's hey, we're getting somewhere and a whole lot of Dude, figure it out! There's rarely anything else. This past two or three weeks have been more of the seriously? kind. Over the weekend I tried yet another strategy to get him focused and listening.
There are three main components that keep Izzy and me out of the show ring: leaning on the bit, tightness in his back, and no stride length in back. These are all mostly the same thing, but over the years, I've been able to get one or two of them fixed, but without all three things working well, we're just not going to be able to show.
For a long time, I fought the heaviness thing. He just would not flex his poll or unlock his jaw. Time and changing bits really helped with that. Then it was his tight back. He was simply unable to stretch over his topline. Patience and a whole lot of long and low have unlocked his back so that now it actually swings - sometimes. Once his back was moving, his stride opened up. For a few minutes last month, we had it all - a poll with flexion, a swinging back, and length of stride.
And then we crashed and burned. Out of nowhere, he has started to once again lean on the bit to the point where I have no steering or brakes. Never one to give up, I tried a new strategy. Rather than focus on getting his back to swing, or engaging his hind end - why do that when he's blasting through my hands?, I focused on suppling his poll and the base of his withers.
I would love to say that getting him to let go of the bit and carry his big noggin himself did the trick, but it didn't. We've spent a couple of weeks working on the idea, but he still thinks the idea is a crappy one. So crappy in fact that he'd rather duke it out with me for an hour and a half rather than carry the bit lightly for 30 minutes.
It's a good thing we both have a pretty good sense of humor.
... metaphorically speaking. We haven't had any measurable rain since maybe March. As our favorite meteorologist put it, "If we do see some precipitation next week, it will mark the second latest start to the rainy season for Bakersfield." So those clouds aren't real.
Since I already had my pity party - many thanks to my ranch owner for being such a good listener and having such a warm shoulder upon which to cry (not really, but she would have if needed), here's the short story: My relaxed, happy, shiny, Big Brown Horse has disappeared, and in his place is a hot mess.
As we all know, I am not a quitter. Sometimes I wish I were; life would be be a lot easier. So instead of throwing in the towel, I texted my trainer and asked what the freaking hell was going on. Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, isn't a quitter either, so on the fly she came up with a game plan to help me find my horse of last month.
Today at lunch marks the beginning of my Thanksgiving break. As I mentioned above, rain is unlikely, so I have a week of nothing to do but ride. Chemaine's plan involves a lot of riding. Think about it like an endurance ride she said.
My world might not be filled with rainbows and unicorns right now, but I can always find a silver lining. I love riding, and now I get to do a lot of it. Wish me luck.
I love Speedy, I really do. That horse has helped me accomplish so many goals. He's even more special considering that he wasn't bred specifically for dressage, but he does it anyway. Despite being amazing, there are still days when he makes me so mad. After Saturday's disaster of a ride, I shot off a text to Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables.
On Sunday morning, after yet another ride with nothing but bolty, head-in-the-air-canters, I simply stopped him, it couldn't even be called a halt, and slid off. His level of try had dropped to zero, and he was nothing but pissed. It would have been hard to say who was more frustrated, him or me.
I sent Chemaine yet another text.
It would seem that being a year-end winner and recipient of tons of awards doesn't mean squat when you move up a level. Have a slice of humble pie, Sweaney, your head was getting too big for your helmet.
Third Level is definitely kicking our butts.
But first, a little bit of a backstory ...
I've had migraines since I was a little kid. As I got older, they got worse like they sometimes do. For the most part, they had been manageable with the right prescription ... until last summer. My insurance plan took my prescription off the "approved list" and substituted it for a less effective generic.
Over the summer, the headaches got worse, so I did some investigating. I got my eyes checked - new glasses were ordered, and I tried a bunch of different migraine medications. None of them worked. About 2 weeks ago, I got a migraine that lasted for 10 days. I missed a number of riding days and lived in excruciating pain. On Wednesday, I saw a neurologist, and on Thursday I had an MRI.
Even in pain that was so severe that I contemplated a lobotomy, all I could wonder was if I'd feel well enough for Sunday's show. The whole yeah my arm is broken, what does that have to with riding? thing. No, I can't see past the ring of fire that is searing my eyeballs, but my horse knows where C is. You get the idea. Once an entry is paid for, I am showing.
Fortunately for me, the neurologist got the pain under control, and by Friday I was feeling closer to normal. On Saturday, a group of us met at the show venue for a Ride-A-Test type clinic with Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables.
If you'll remember, I shared this post about being the local hack. It was written tongue in cheek, of course, but there was definitely an element of truth to it as well. So there I was already feeling way out of my depth, and then on top of that, my brain was so fuzzy that I could barely tell you my name.
Chemaine finished up with her first student and called me in. It had been more than six months since I'd schooled in an actual dressage court, so I really wanted to work on some of the trickier movements from Second Level: the three loop serpentine with simple changes at the center line and the 20-meter counter canter half circles.
I am not going to lie. I cried. I was just so overwhelmed by all that I needed to fix that I felt defeated before I had even heard the judge's bell. My brain just couldn't get the whole left lead, track right thing. I don't know how Chemaine keeps so positive when she's faced with such a pathetic mess.
But. I am not a quitter. I learned that while riding hundred mile endurance rides. You suck it up, you grit your teeth, you get it done. Chemaine finally got me to use my outside rein to balance Speedy, and suddenly, our counter canter was balanced, and our canter to walk to canter transitions were a bit clearer.
The next morning, as I was driving to the show venue, a song by Jarrod Niemann came on the radio. I have an awesome horse in Speedy G, so when I heard the chorus, I knew it was going to be okay.
Girl I got this
Don't got to think too hard
It's a can't miss
I know right where to start
Yeah the only thing I'm needin' is a girl to play the lead
In this cool movie that I'm dreaming up right now
And if you're down with that
I got this
Yeah, I got this
And Speedy? He's definitely got it!
I've owned at least 10 horses over my lifetime, ridden more than that, and even leased another one or two. A few of them were difficult, but they ultimately became excellent riding horses who were very good at their jobs. My last two horses, Sydney the OTTB from New Zealand and Izzy the big brown horse, have been more challenging than any of the others.
Sydney just couldn't make it as a dressage horse, and it wasn't just me who thought so. Several trainers agreed. I gave him to someone who was good at rehoming difficult horses. About once a week, I suffer a crisis of confidence and consider selling Izzy, too. Without fail, he always comes back with a good effort though, and I get sucked back into believing that he and I can become dancing partners.
Last week, he and I had a terrible ride.
From the moment I got to the barn, I had to talk myself into riding. I was tired and not really feeling it, but I convinced myself that some saddle time was just what I needed.
Izzy always meets me at the gate, or at least starts walking toward me. Not that day. I had to go get him. Lately, I've been grooming him in his turnout without the need for a halter. He wants to be with me and enjoys the grooming. Not that day.
When he walked away, I grabbed my halter and brought him back and tied him to the fence. When he reached out to nip me, a game that he sometimes takes too far, I tried to pop him in the nose, but missed. He glared at me, took a moment to formulate a plan, and then sat back hard. When nothing gave, (I usually tie him with my Block Tie Ring), he sat back deeper and really put his back into it.
Eventually, when nothing broke, he jumped back forward and stood in place. I never yelled or reacted. I just stood there watching him. When he was done, I finished grooming him and walked him over to the tack room to saddle up, but I was even more reluctant to ride.
We walked up to the arena, and I got on like always. As we went through our normal warm up, I could feel him getting more and more tense. Gone was the fabulous horse I've been riding over the past month. After trying everything to get him to soften, or yield, or simply recognize that I was up there, I decided that a canter might work out some of the tension.
It did not. We cantered on the right lead, but when I asked for the left lead, he threw a fit. He. Absolutely. Would. Not. Canter. Left. I finally gave up. In the past, when he couldn't or wouldn't bend, my first assumption has been that he needs to see the chiropractor.
That thought frustrated me even more since CC was just here three weeks ago. I am willing to do a lot for my horses, and I do, but twice monthly visits by the chiropractor are just not in the budget. Basically, I threw in the towel, had a pity party, and decided I just don't have enough talent to ride this horse.
As it tends to, a greater power stepped in and kept me out of the saddle for three days. I had some social commitments to take care of and a work meeting cropped up, so before I knew it, it was Friday, which thanks to our nation's veterans, was a day off. I was able to to take Speedy to the vet and ride Izzy early in the afternoon.
Suddenly, my big brown horse was once again on my team. We had a delightful ride, and then followed it up with an even better ride the next day. What changed? Well, probably me for starters, but I also watched some video of Chemaine Hurtado riding last week with Robert Dover during a clinic. I messaged Chemaine and told her to bring Robert's tips with her this next weekend for our clinic. She agreed.
Until next week, I am backing away from the for sale ledge ...
About the Writer and Rider
I am a lifelong rider.
I began endurance riding in 1996 where I ultimately completed five, one-day 100 mile races, the 200-mile Death Valley Encounter, and numerous other 50, 65, and 75 mile races. I began showing dressage in 2010.
Welcome to my dressage journey.
About Speedy G
Speedy went from endurance horse to dressage horse. After helping me earn a USDF Bronze medal in the summer of 2020, he is now semi-retired. Speedy is a 2004, 15'1 hand, purebred Arabian gelding. His Arabian Horse Registry name is G Ima Starr FA.
Izzy was started as a four-year old and then spent the next 18 months in pasture growing up. I bought him as a six-year old, and together, we are showing at Second Level. He is a 2008, 16'3 hand warmblood gelding. His Rheinland Pfalz-saar International (RPSI) name is Imperioso.
National Rider Awards
State Rider Awards
State Horse Awards
CDS Sapphire Rider Award
Third Level: 63.514%
Third Level: 62.105%
2021 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
(Q) Must Qualify
2021 Pending …
2021 Completed …
10/24-25 SCEC (***)
11/7-11/8 SB (***)
2021 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
2nd Level Qualifying
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%:
Score 1: 60.610% Bhathal
2nd Level Qualifying
5 Scores/4 Judges/61%:
Stuff I Read